Thursday, November 24, 2005

Giving thanks

I like the old Protestant hymns. They're generally within the range my voice encompasses and I generally know them well enough to sing them out confidently. When we go to Mass I check the We Celebrate hymnal to see whether there's one of these to look forward to. Years ago I was surprised to see them there. A Mighty Fortress has such rich Lutheran connotations that it used to take me aback to find myself singing it in Catholic church. But now I just welcome these chestnuts as old friends.

This Thanksgiving day the song of choice is likely to be We Gather Together.

The hymn has an interesting history. Like many, it takes its tune from an old folk or tavern song. In this case it's a Dutch folksong which has the opening line: "Wilder than wild, who will tame me?" It's first transformation occured in 1597 when it was rewritten for use in a patriotic celebration on the defeat of the Spanish in the Battle of Turnhout, in which a relatively small calvalry troop under Prince Maurice of Orange defeated a large cavalry army of Spanish occupiers in a Flemish town. It was the first open-field victory for the feisty Dutch and the beginning of a string of successes that ended with the independence of the Dutch Republic (officially recognized in 1648).

Although the opening line sounds ecumenical, it was probably intended to be an in-your-face defiance of the Catholic Spanish by the Protestant Dutch. A paraphrase might be "your prohibition of our religion means nothing to us; we meet in our churches to defy you. God is on our side."

Here's a common English translation from the Dutch. As you read it, keep in mind this triumphal intent.
We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens his will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing:
sing praise to his Name, he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning the fight we were winning:
thou, Lord, wast at our side: all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation:
thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
Though hymn-like, this patriotic song would not have been sung in church. It wasn't until 1937 that Dutch Reformed churches permitted the singing of anything but psalms.

It's probable that its transformation into a Thanksgiving hymn was a recent one. And it probably occured in other Protestant churches before being adopted for use in the Dutch Reformed churches of our heritage. Evidence suggests that the impetus came from Theodore Baker, an American scholar studying in Leipzig. Baker translated the song into English in 1894 as a "prayer of Thanksgiving" to be sung by a choir. HIs is the translation that's most commonly used today.

So, this Thanksgiving, let's honor the freedom fighters among our Netherlandish forebears. But let's also gather together to recognize and celebrate the religious toleration of our time, imperfect to be sure, but not the worse for that.

This commemorative coin shows the Battle of Turnhout and Spanish Defeat of 1597. On one side it show Spanish troops in flight, pursued by those of Prince Maurice of Orange. On the other it shows the nine towns captured by the Allies: Alpen, Berchem, Meurs, Grol, Bredevoort, Enschede, Oldenzaal, Otmarse, Lingen.

My main source: A Hymn's Long Journey Home, BY MELANIE KIRKPATRICK. And see also Volokh, Crooked Timber, and the links I've inserted in text.

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